Getting jazzy in DeKalb

On the record ... with John D. Smith

DeKALB – Great music and fun: that’s what John D. Smith promises anyone who attends DeKalb’s first New Orleans Jazz Weekend June 7-8 in DeKalb and Wayne, about 25 miles away.

“This is an opportunity for the community to experience three different settings of New Orleans Jazz,” he said. “It’ll be a lot of fun.”

Smith is the president of local nonprofit Just Make It Happen, Inc., which is hosting four musical events in two days: a jazz party from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, June 7, at Faranda’s in DeKalb; community jazz worship services at First United Methodist Church in DeKalb at 8:45 and 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, June 8; and a parade and ice cream social in Wayne on the afternoon of June 8.

A Wing and a Prayer Dixieland Orchestra and other musicians from the region will perform both traditional and Dixieland jazz. Smith manages and plays trombone for A Wing and a Prayer.

Smith is no stranger to DeKalb-area musicians – he taught music for 33 years in the DeKalb school system. Since his retirement, he jokingly refers to himself as a “graduate of teaching.” He is president of both J.D. Music Pros and Just Make It Happen, Inc., whose mission is to provide entertainment to benefit the community.

“It’s music for all ages,” he said.

Among many other bands, Smith has belonged to the DeKalb Municipal Band since 1967 and the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra since 1979. Since age 16, he has been a member of the American Federation of Musicians.

“I wear many hats,” he said.

Smith talked about jazz with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.

Oleson: What is Just Make it Happen?

Smith: It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It began as an impromptu idea to help people in our community and the surrounding community to access music that they normally don’t have a chance to access – big band music, Dixieland jazz, jazz – and that the musicians and the performers are rewarded. We have four or five different areas that we create: we create events that are affordable to everybody; two, we try to address the educational needs of students, to be able to access professional musicians and artists in general from preschool all the way through high school; and then we’re also looking at terms of age access. For instance, the seniors oftentimes do not have access to professional musicians, often of an amateur nature, and that’s fine. But what we’re interested in is improving and stimulating our culture in a variety of ways.

The New Orleans jazz group, A Wing and A Prayer, was started in impromptu, right here down at the Corn Fest. Mark Baldwin, who was an announcer at WLBK at the time, he called all the guys and said, “Hey, let’s get together and have some fun.”

So out of that it grew. We learned that people yearned to know about Dixieland music, and to hear it, so we performed it for a few years and then it also developed into shows, playing on riverboats, for funerals, and other things.

Oleson: Will anyone be performing with your group?

Smith: Brian Patti is a clarinetist from Chicago. He is one of the guest artists at Faranda’s on Saturday night. He has done Navy Pier and all the name places in Chicago. He has also traveled and teaches.

Pauline Cultra is from Rochelle right now, but she’s been in the area for many years. She’s a pianist. She’ll be entertaining when we are on break.

Oleson: What can the crowd expect Saturday night?

Smith: We always start with something new so the crowd can see jazz musicians working together. ...We want that spontaneity, that unknown turn. ...We will play off of each other. We all bring a lot to the plate, each individual. There’s all kinds of juxtaposition of music in a playful way.

Oleson: How long has the orchestra been together?

Smith: Twenty years.

Oleson: What’s this like for the musicians?

Smith: It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. Giving four performances within 24 hours is pretty challenging.

We want to have fun with the music in all settings. It’s a lively group. We’re serious about having fun. If you come, you’ll understand.

Oleson: All over or just around here?

Smith: The Midwest. We played on a riverboat in the Mississippi for New Year’s Eve. We played in Davenport, Iowa, we played in towards Chicago, any place that wants to have Dixieland music.

Oleson: So what exactly is this New Orleans Jazz Weekend?

Smith: I am calling it the first annual event. It’s an event, not a festival. We aren’t emphasizing the decadence of Mardi Gras. It’ll be fun.

Oleson: Will you just be playing jazz?

Smith: It is called the New Orleans Jazz ... we pay tribute to all the musicians who came before us. You hear all kinds of turns that feed into that tradition. ...All the big band leaders began in Dixieland.

This is an opportunity for the community to experience three different settings of New Orleans Jazz. ...It isn’t sit down; you can get up and dance.

Oleson: What are the three settings?

Smith: It starts with a New Orleans Jazz Party on Saturday, June 7, at 7 p.m. at Faranda’s in downtown DeKalb. It’ll be a cabaret setting with tables for eight and topper tables you can stand around. It’s something you would find in New Orleans, only more elegant. We’ll play for three hours, until 10 p.m.

On Sunday morning, June 8, we’ll have our New Orleans Community Jazz Worship at 9 and 11:30 a.m. at First United Methodist Church in DeKalb.

That afternoon is a road trip to Wayne for its annual Flag Day Homecoming. There’ll be a short parade and an ice cream social. It’s from 4 to 6 p.m.

Oleson: How long will you perform at the church?

Smith: We’ll play 15 minutes before each service, and during the service as well.

Oleson: How did the church get involved?

Smith: I asked if they might be interested in developing a worship service using America’s gift to the world, jazz, specifically New Orleans Dixieland jazz.  

Also, when researching the topic, I discovered a Burlington, Vt., group, Onion River Jazz Band, that had developed services for many churches in their area for the past 30 years. The models they provided assisted in the developmental stages. 

I sent out an invitation to DeKalb area churches about the opportunity. First United Methodist and Salem Lutheran responded with interest.  Each collaborated on separate services and designs.  

We spent several hours conferring to develop for each a lively service using the New Orleans sound created by A Wing and A Prayer Dixieland Orchestra while retaining their religious traditions. First United Methodist Church in DeKalb has continued to feature a New  Orleans worship on Pentecost Sunday. They provide two services on Pentecost Sunday, so that the community can select to attend the service at FUMC that does not conflict with their church time. The 11:30 a.m. often has the most open seats available for guests. 

This will be our fourth FUMC service. Results thus far: People love the rhythms, sounds, and fun nature of Dixieland music, and it often renews attendees’ spirit. Worship provides an opportunity for the church to welcome the community for the services.  

Each year people are enlivened and would like its return more regularly. JMIH would love to share the New Orleans spirit with other churches or groups. It is amazing what new spirit the service provides for attendees.

Oleson: So this is the first time for the whole jazz weekend?

Smith: This is the first year for the jazz weekend, the fourth year for the jazz worship and the 20th for the parade.

Oleson: If I understand it right, the church and the parade are free, but there’s a cost for the jazz party?

Smith: Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. You can get them at Faranda’s, 302 Grove St. in DeKalb or at www.justmakeithappen-dekalb.com by June 1. There’s a cash bar at Faranda’s. There’s a free-will offering at the church.